Water Sticks (Ranatra nigra) are commonly collected during pond programs at Prairie Ridge, though few people will ever notice these highly camouflaged and fascinating creatures in the water. However, while most land-dwelling insects have disappeared for the winter, the Water Sticks overwinter in the ponds as adults and are viewable throughout the year.
Water Sticks are large aquatic insects in the true bug order Hemiptera. They are characterized by their raptorial (= grasping) forelegs, the long tube that protrudes from the back end of the bug, and their long, skinny, and stick-like body shape. Their shape and coloration help them blend in with their environment perfectly and give them their common name.
Water Sticks are sit-and-wait predators, which means that rather than chasing their prey, they will sit in one place perfectly still and wait for food to swim by. When it does, they will reach out with their raptorial forelegs and grab the prey with surprising speed. They will then use their sharp piercing-sucking mouthparts, visible in the image on the right above, to inject chemicals that both subdue the prey animal and begin to dissolve the tissues. Water Sticks, like all true bugs, are incapable of chewing their food, so they must liquefy anything they are going to eat before sucking it up through their mouthparts. If you've ever slurped a milkshake up through a straw, you have eaten similarly to how a Water Stick feeds!
Water Sticks belong to one genus, Ranatra, within the larger insect family Nepidae. While only the Water Sticks have the long, stick-like body shape, all members of the Nepidae family have a long tube protruding off the back end. This structure gives the family its common name, the Water Scorpions. Water Scorpions cannot sting, however, and use the tube for completely harmless purposes: respiration. Water Scorpions, including the Water Sticks, rely on atmospheric air to breathe and must make frequent trips to the surface to collect air. The bugs use their long tubes like a snorkel, sticking them out above the water line to allow air to flow into their respiratory system so they can breathe.
We are trying to learn more about Water Sticks and would love YOUR help! By participating in our Wading for Water Sticks citizen science project, you will learn how to sample your local aquatic habitats, identify your Water Stick species, and collect habitat data. Or, simply look into the pond the next time you're at Prairie Ridge and see if you can spot one. If you look really closely around the base of the cattails, you just might see a Water Stick lurking in the water!
Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.